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Cars for snow

Our son needs a car to drive to and from school in upstate (Rochester) NY. He is driving only about 10 miles, but they get a lot of snow and ice (and salt). We are thinking about a Jeep Cherokee or Subaru. Or do you think fwd is just as good as awd if on road? Our budget is under $3000. Any advice?

If your budget is under $3k, you will have to be VERY careful about learning the real condition of any car that you are seriously considering, as it will be an old and probably very tired vehicle.

That being said, there is a large disparity between the reliability of a Jeep and a Subaru, assuming that they were both maintained properly. Jeeps are known for a lot a very quirky electrical/electronic problems that are very difficult to resolve. They are also known for serious front-end issues when they are old, namely the infamous “Jeep Death Wobble” that can–literally–shake the steering wheel out of the driver’s hands.

Also, some of the Jeep 4wd systems cannot be used in 4wd mode unless the roadway is uniformly snow-covered. Driving those 4wd systems on a “patchy” winter surface will produce handling issues and will lead to mechanical problems. If you are considering a Jeep, be sure of which type of 4wd system it has.

Then again, '97-'03 Subarus with the 2.5 liter engine are notorious for head gasket problems. However, if your budget is only $3k, you would probably be looking at a Subaru even older than 1997, so head gasket issues may not be significant. However, on any AWD Subaru, you do have to be sure that the car has 4 matched tires. If, like most old beaters, a used Subaru has tires of varying manufacturers and varying amounts of tread wear, DO NOT buy it as you will soon be looking at very expensive repair bills.

No, FWD is not as good as AWD–especially in an area like Rochester, NY–but if you equip his car with a set of 4 winter tires, even a FWD car will be surprisingly good in the snow and ice. Just be sure to avoid a RWD vehicle because of their very poor traction–and that is a shame because there are some RWD vehicles that are really reliable.

As long as you realize that any car in the $3k range is going to be an old “beater” and will have a limited life span, then do a slow and careful search. Have a likely candidate inspected by a mechanic of your choice. If the vehicle in question has a timing belt–like Subarus and virtually all imported 4-cylinder cars–DO NOT buy it unless there is documentary proof that the timing belt was replaced within the last 3 or 4 years or so.

Also–be sure to hold back at least $500 for unanticipated repairs. Unfortunately, any car in that price class is going to need periodic, unpredictable repairs, in addition to normal maintenance.

And, don’t rely on Carfax. Those who have trusted Carfax to find a “clean” vehicle have been sadly disappointed in many cases.

Good luck!

I wouldn’t buy an AWD or 4WD drive car for $3,000 or under. They will be too old and be likely to need expensive repairs.

Just get a FWD car and spend the money for a set of 4 winter tires. I have a Honda Civic ('03) and my winter tires are mounted on spare wheels. It is easy to change them over every fall and spring. The car handles PA mountain winters just fine.

A Ford Escort, Civic, Dodge Neon etc. will all drive great in winter if you put winter tires on them. You can get a decent small FWD car for $3,000. Just spend some money for a mechanic to give it a pre-sale inspection so you know what you are getting. Brake pad wear, struts, steering racks, etc. can all get checked over before you buy the car.

You DON’T need AWD or 4wd in Rochester.

Any good fwd vehicle will do fine. But I highly suggest you get 4 winter/snow tires for the winter months. Rochester is one of the snowiest cities in the country. I think the only city that sees more snow is Syracuse.

I’m with everyone else. In your price range, a front-wheel-drive car with good winter tires is the way to go here. You probably want to buy an extra set of basic steel wheels for the winter tires, which makes it easier to switch. Tire Rack can sell you the whole package, ready to put on the car.

A better question is “tires for snow”? I’d recommend Brigstone Blizzak, Michelin X-Ice and Pirelli Scorpions. Tires are 95% of winter driving.

With a budget of $3k, I’d look for a Japanese FWD car – Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Subaru, etc. Hyudais are good deals these days. The condition of the car and service history are more important than year, make or mileage. Take it to a good independent specialist for a pre-purchase inspection.


VDC has covered all the bases. Let me caution you again about a Cherokee…cheap to buy, expensive to run. For $3K, I vote with everyone else. Get the best car you can (good luck) then shod it with winter tires.

Thanks, that’s a lot of info I never knew. We’ll check it out, which is luckily required under NY state law.

A small FWD car will be fine. Rochester is fairly flat. I would stay away from Honda and Toyota. They are just too expensive as a used car. I own a Honda as my daily driver, so it’s not as though I don’t like the cars. Look at a 2000 to 2002 Chevy Cavalier or a 200 to 2001 Ford Focus. Maybe a 2001 Hyundai Accent or Elantra.

I agree. For a ten mile distance in a flat urban area where the roads are well plowed and salted to boot, I don’t see any concern. It’s not even much of an issue compared to farther distances on winter back roads in most northern states. Spent time in one of their worst winters (Rome NY). Drove an old 66 Chevy with summer tires as fast as the guy behind me and as slow as the guy in front. Traffic speed just slowed with conditions and we all slipped and spun along together. Yes winter tires would be good.

Put Him In A Large FWD Car. A FWD Buick LeSabre Or Something Along Those Lines Would Be A Good Choice. Just Have Some Decent All-Season Tires On It And He’s Good To Go.

The FWD, weight, and longer wheel-base of these cars make them a good choice for slippery or snow covered roads.

That 3800 GM engine has a timing chain, rather than a timing belt. Many used cars have a timing belt waiting to snap and trash the engine, totalling the car. Putting a new timing belt on is a fairly expensive procedure, done even before it snaps.

These cars offer reliability, safety, good winter traction, and get up to 30mpg. You’ll sleep beter with him in a bigger machine, trust me. You’re not in the “chick magnet” category for $3000, but rather “basic transportation”. He will have to earn his way to a “chick magnet, later”.

Plan on paying only about $2500 to save $500 for tweaking or spend $3000 and you’ll probably have to kick in a little more.


I think it’s all about the tires. I have a Nissan 2WD pickup. Rear wheel drive with no weight is usually terrible in snow but I use a set of studded snow tires on spare rims in winter and the truck does just fine. So get a reliable FWD put snow tires on it in winter and tell your son that if the roads have snow on them to drive slow.

I would stay away from Hyundais. Although they have become top tier in quality NOW, for a pricetag under $3000 you would be looking at a 2004 or earlier. That vintage still suffered from mechanical and electrical problems.

I’m a huge awd fan for winter travel but with everyone else…not for $3K. Just get the besat car you can find, regardless of drive train and out fit it for winter. Exception is an older Honda CRV whose drive trains do hold up better…but then, rust is a problem.